Monday, 21 May 2007

An Australian Experience-Parties at party

Political parties in Australia still have their own distinctive characteristics and traditions ("stripes"). A divide between the two major, leading parties is clear and definite. The Labour Party is just what the name says it is. It is claimed to be the oldest political party in Australia, established well before the Federation. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, has something of a misreading of its name, since the party is in effect an Australian party of Conservatives, similar to that party in the UK. Being liberal and conservative at the same time seems contradictory, and parties bearing these names in other countries commonly stand way apart in politics. The point is that this party is liberal against regulation and control, while reserving principles on stability, British royal heritage, and value preservation.
Due to their separate origins, political inclinations can be roughly drawn along a centre line separating blue collar workers and office or business persons. Leaders are largely drawn from teacher (for Labour) and lawyers (for Liberal), though there are numerous exceptions, such as Bob Hawke of the Labour Party having worked as a lawyer specialising in industrial relations. This traditional line is getting blurred by the day, with both parties receiving new recruits of various backgrounds and convictions.
The Labour Party has endured a roller coster ride in their pursuit of power from early times. With its left wing or "wet" stand, Labour was very much the underdog in Australian politics, constrained at all sides by British loyalists and conservatives in all forms. The party got a big break during WWII, with nine years in government under John Curtin and Ben Chiefley. They worked extremely hard to win the war and defend the country. For these remarkable deeds, they received recognition and respects from people then and now, despite most recent revisionist comments from Liberal politicians. The way Labour activists and historians portrayed and glorified their war leaders inevitably annoyed conservatives of the 1990s intensively, especially when the Liberals have not commanded government offices for over a decade. That glorification, then, must be tone down.
One thorny point is that John Curtin made a dramatic turn to seek help from the Americans and lessened the previously unquestioned bond of kinship with Britain. He resolutely disobeyed direct orders from British Supremo Winston Churchill and urged a re-assignment of Australian troops back to the Pacific to defend their own country, rather than deployments for the European war, or wars in Britain's Asian colonies. British loyalists in Australia, key members of the Liberal Party, feel deeply upset and find it hard to forgive this departure from the cherished "England first" stand.
Curtin also won eternal reverence for this death in office shortly before the overall war victory of the Allies. This adds some tragic and mythical touches to the legends of Labour leaders and raised their status in the eyes of fellow countrymen. There are no higher standards and stricter criteria in judging great leaders than that on their performance in wars and defending national interests. The fact that Labour governments shouldered the heavy responsibilities of dealing with the war and post war reconstruction outstandingly successfully puts later revisionist history writings in an uncomfortable position of attempting to erase something which are cast in iron and beyond party politics.
Thereafter, it was a Liberal era all the way to the 1970s. This unfortunate period to the Labour Party witnessed the incredible feat of Sir Robert Menzies as the longest serving Prime Minister in Australia's history. Labour under Gough Whitlam saw a brief break after an extended long drought. His catchphrase, "It is time", accurately reflected the anxiety and impatience of the party repeatedly deprived of a chance to run government offices. Labour had the Vietnam War as an effective weapon in campaigns and generated numerous ideas to govern. They commanded vigour and vision, while their opponents were stuck to the legacy of a previous great.
Amazingly, a great deal of work was done during the brief reign of Whitlam government before the controversial "dismissal". Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, formal foreign relations were established with "red China", "White Australia" policy were officially ended, and measures to set a welfare state, including the Medibank, were undertaken.
The succeeding Liberal government under Malcolm Fraser carried on some of the Labour initiatives, but proceeded to dismantling many other. With this reversal of the policies formulated during the short years of Labour government, the Coalition went on to win elections in 1977 and 1980. The sparks of magic light seemed to have shone so briefly for Labour, and the tug of war remained one-sided.
To Labour, things got worse before they got better. It seems true that any political party waiting for its turn in office and ascendancy in general can only achieve these when charismatic leaders emerged to lead with confidence and popularity. A more charismatic and voter friendly Labour politician after Whitlam, Bob Hawke, emerged and effortlessly grabbed the leadership of the party, pacifying resistance of Bill Hayden and other members of Labour echelon. The writing was on the wall, and a new page was going to be turned with a band. Hawke and an equally brilliant leader Paul Keating forged an unbroken Labour rule of 13 years encompassing the 1980s and the 1990s. In reference to the Curtin-Chiefley era, the remarkable feats of this second duo prove once again the undeniable significance of extraordinary leaders to the fate of a political party.
The 13 year rule under Labour Party enforced an impression of Australia of an unending, perpetual Labour era, especially to those people who moved to this country in the 1980s. My time of study and life in Australia was squarely within this time span of Labour rule, as such this is the main cause to my profound interest in this country and the part of Australian reality I understand most. I take this experience as a disclaimer here to some of the observations made on political parties of Australia. (to be continued)

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